The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"The Campbell Report" - July/August 1994

A Word About the Cartoon

Thanks to APCT'er Chris Caligari for his keen sense of humor in providing the idea and caption for the above cartoon. I've been saving my favorite creation for a special occasion and asked his opinion of my "severed body parts humor" and he came up with this suggestion.

Another Way To Enjoy Chess ... Design Forms!

Chess provides a never-ending array of different ways to enjoy our favorite activity. Don't settle for just one or two! I'd like to high-light one activity not often discussed ... chess forms. Most of us use forms of one type or another in our pursuit of chess, from score sheets to diagrams to pre-printed postal chess postcards. From my earliest years of chess I've taken pleasure in using forms I designed which had exactly the features I wanted. If you're not completely happy with the forms you are now using, design your own!

For OTB chess I wanted a form I could keep in a standard 3-ring binder. I also wanted score sheets printed on heavier stock with a diagram for the final (or another critical) position. Furthermore, I wanted a place to note down the time used after each move. In postal chess I've never found a form which allowed me to note the dates received/replied in exactly the way I preferred. The ICCF forms came close but they weren't precisely what I wanted. So in both cases above I designed and printed my own forms.

At first I had to prepare stencils, a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. One slip and the stencil was ruined. Typing with some hand-drawing of lines was another technique I used. It worked but wasn't entirely satisfactory. With the new word processors and desktop publishing software available for home computers it is now possible to do very professional-looking work. Print out the result on a laser-printer or other high-quality printer and you have some very nice looking forms ... forms which precisely meet your chessic needs ... and a source of pride and pleasure every time you record a move. Try it ... you'll like it.

Chess Software for Postal Record Keeping

Several members submitted useful information and intelligent ideas for features of the ideal postal chess software package. Two sent information about software that has been around for some time. I'm currently trying to obtain up-to-date information on this software.

Ralph P. Marconi of Joliette (Quebec), Canada, wrote, "...such a software package that you mention does exist and has existed since 1988. As a matter of fact I've been using this program since 1988. The program is called PC-SCOREBOOK, written by Javy R. Gwaltney III ... Coincidentally, he developed the program for many of the same reasons you mentioned." APCT'er Marconi continued with a list of features, many which I had thought of plus a few I hadn't. He also commented, "By the way, I don't see how even this program can eliminate clerical errors or notational errors. After all, what if you were to enter the wrong information or move! Believe me it has happened to me. What I mean is that if you enter a legal but incorrect move (not the one you or your opponent intended) the program will save it. The program does check the legality of the moves."

Dick Mesirov of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania also sent information about a commercially available postal chess system. He said, "What it does is keep records perfectly. Moves are entered with a mouse and when you are ready you print out five labels, just like the ones enclosed. Your return address, opponent's address, a label with the section, last five moves, etc. and a printout of the board. They suggest that you send your opponent the board print-out, but I keep them instead of using a Post-A-Log. You can also get a complete print-out of the game at any time and I've enclosed one also. Addresses can be changed at any time and there's no limit to the number of games that can be in progress at any time. I haven't made a clerical error since I started using the program!"

Thanks for the info, chessfriend! This last software package (and apparently the first one as well) uses a clever technique to avoid problems with printers that may not print on cards. All the information to be mailed is printed on five standard labels. You just peal off the labels and stick them onto the postcard. The two packages had similar enough descriptions that I think they are the same package. I've sent to both addresses provided and will report on what I find out.

Chuck Luers of Batesville, Indiana sent the following:

"Read with interest your article ... regarding chess software for postal record keeping. You invited reader comments about desirable features of a postal chess software package. Here is my list:

  1. Allow for the entry of the postmark, received and sent dates for each move. Based on the dates, the move's reflection time and each player's total reflection time would be automatically computed. Dates could be typed in various formats ...
  2. When entering moves by typing, the system should be comprehensive and be able to handle any type of notation ... This would eliminate notation errors. You expressed concern that this may violate rules about receiving help from others. In my opinion it does not violate any of the rules (APCT, USCF and WCCF) that I am aware of. If using a package like ChessBase to search thousands of historical games for a given position (for games in-progress!) is not a violation of the rules then it would be ludicrous for this to be interpreted as a violation!
  3. It should be possible to record "IF" move(s). This includes multiple series of alternative "IF" move(s). When an opponent accepts an "IF" it should be possible to enter that move simply by removing the "IF" part rather than re-entering the move. When a series of "IF" moves is accepted it should be possible to select and accept all the moves at once.
  4. Your idea of returning a game to it's real position with the touch of one key is a good one. A "take-back" feature of one or more moves would be helpful. ... I'd like to be able to see the resulting positions of multiple lines of play for a game. If these results could be displayed side-by-side on the monitor using several mini-boards it would be very beneficial in determining the best line. The computer would not compare the positions as this would be a certain rules violation. The evaluation would still have to be made by the player. It would be no different than having multiple manual analysis boards.
  5. A foolproof game backup/restore feature is a must...
  6. The package should be able to print postcards (front and back) that emulate the USCF's mail move cards using the popular post office pre-stamped, blank cards...
  7. The ability to retrieve games based on indices would be a nice feature. Possible indices would be postal organization, section, opening, opponent name, wins and losses, and game position.
  8. A marketable package must be able to do ALL the record keeping that we now have to do manually. Any additional features that would make our hobby easier and less time consuming would be welcome. The more features and options the better!

He added a few comments including, "Seems to me that the marketability of their packages [current chess software vendors] would be enhanced if they incorporated (or made available as an extra-cost option) the postal features list. The big question is, 'Would enough people buy it to justify the development cost?'"

Chris Caligari of Hudson, New Hampshire noted:

"Regarding postal recording software my 2-cents worth would add two things to your present design.
  1. A full function "BOOKUP" type opening database (user editable).
  2. Ability to store the source of each move made, i.e. "ECO Vol. B Page 227 line 21" or "Five Chess Endings p. 454."
  3. The third of the two things I'd like to see would be auto-calculation of your success rate with various opening lines, i.e. ECO Var. XXX - W20 D5 L3." Too much to ask for?

Thanks to the readers who took the time to think out and write down their ideas. Just as I hoped, there are many items in the above lists that I hadn't thought of. Hopefully by the time you read the next column I can report a start of my version of a software package for postalites, though it will certainly lack many of the more difficult features suggested. Chuck Luers suggested in his letter that many of these difficult features can be found in existing software so why re-invent the wheel. This is certainly valid and I agree completely.

More Morphy's Laws of Postal Chess

Stan Evans of Louisville, KY sent the following:

  1. The one publication you fail to consult prior to sending an opening move will contain the refutation / correction / improvement of your sent move.
  2. Whenever you do not critically check published analysis ... your opponent definitely will!

Dave Shanholtzer contributed these:

In complex positions the least likely move your opponent will choose is the one you spend the most time and analysis on.

Corollary: In complex positions the most likely move your opponent will choose is the one you spend the least amount of time and analysis on -- or overlook completely.

More on Taking Back Moves

This topic has certainly sparked a lot of interest. The whole area of chess ethics is indeed a difficult one (see the following comments on GM Patrick Wolff's Chess Life article). I am reminded of Eliot Hearst's definition:

Ethics, Chess -- undefined (we could find no examples of this).

I recently received a thought-provoking letter from APCT top player and columnist Jonathan Edwards. I, in general, am in the Do-Not-Allow-Takebacks camp but this letter provides a compelling case for allowing takebacks, at least for some competitors (that is, some of you might be better off allowing your opponents to correct a non-chess error).

"Your recent column, and particularly Stephan Gerzadowicz's comments, have moved me to write. Over the years I have found myself on both sides of the illegal-move / notational-error issue. In my experience, none of my opponents have ever let me off the hook for a stupidity. I have acted similarly, until recently. I have come to agree completely with Stephan ... that the game ought to be decided by the quality of our moves, not our obsessive adherence to the rules. In five games last year, I wrote to let my opponents take back moves that I assumed involved some notational error, move order problem, or similar type of discrepancy. One of those involved Stephan himself, who wrote back something to the effect that 'You know you're busted when your opponent offers to let you take back your move.'

"I did it then as in the other cases because the games were interesting and I didn't want them spoiled by notational or typographical errors. I'm partly motivated by my desire to generate interesting material for my column and by the hope of having decent experiences within the APCT. Early last year I lost a queen instantly because I replied to a card without seeing that it was a repeat. Rather than the second capture in a sequence my opponent interpreted it as the first. He was fully within his rights to do so, though I was left wondering if he ever received my first reply. Given the nature of our subsequent correspondence, I still wonder.

"About five years ago one of my opponents sent what I read to be Rf5. It was a plausible move ... and I responded to it. He replied to the move, confirming Rf5. Two moves later his position inexplicably fell apart. He explained that he had really sent Re5. The truth is his handwriting was even worse than mine and it really was hard to distinguish his 'f' from his 'e.' Looking at the original card I came to see that his original move was indeed 'Re5' ... but he had confirmed my interpretation on the next card. I stood my ground ... immediately winning an otherwise interesting game. I was within the rules to claim, but I now regret having done so!

"A recent case, just last month, involved an opponent relatively new to the APCT, whose first card to me read:

if 1. e4 c6
if 2. d4 Nf6

"The '2' obviously was supposed to be a '1' and I let him off the hook. I would like to think that we all would have done so! Otherwise, he would effectively have lost the game without even making a move!

"In a case last week, I sent ...d5, which my opponent read as "N5," assuming 'Nd5' and in so doing nearly left me in shock. That one got cleared up quickly, thankfully since I didn't write Nd5. I should add that my wife read it as N5, too.

"I'm not writing to preach ... or even to recommend a rule change. I doubt even that I'll influence any opinions. I simply want to state that I shall no longer bow to the arbitrary rigors or the rules. I apologize to the opponents I had from 1986-91 when I absolutely applied the rule of the law ... there's no honor or pleasure to be had in reaping points from such errors. As Helen suggested in the last issue: 'It's only a game. Get a life!'

"For whatever it's worth, I don't expect equal treatment, and I shall continue to avoid if-moves (even in obvious recapture situations) and to practice more than ordinary care in filling out my cards. In so doing, I imply utterly no disrespect to my opponents."

Thanks for the letter! This issue isn't an straight-forward as I thought as one time. The ideas discussed by both Jon above and Stephan are not easy to ignore. The idea of being labeled a bad sport because you insist on strict interpretation of the rules is unappealing to me. But if a more relaxed approach to the rules is more in line with your enjoyment of postal chess there's no reason not to use that approach, in my opinion.

Jonathan Edwards followed up his letter with some comments he gathered from others. He said, "Before mailing this, I put a draft out on the internet ... I have appended the responses I received."

Ned Walthall responded:

"I disagree. I admire your generosity and your sportsmanship, and I find your arguments very compelling. Nevertheless, I find myself very uncomfortable with the notion of either being allowed to correct a notational error or allowing an opponent to do so. It is a very tough call, but I lean to the less generous line of behavior for a number of reasons.
  1. My own bias towards chess is that it is a sport and I even believe this true of postal ... Every sport measures skills that in an ideal world should not be directly related to its outcome. A measure of how well the Dallas Cowboys do is how well organized Jimmy Johnson is as a coach. ... The fact is that postal measures some abilities other than chess, one being your ability to keep accurate records, another your ability to conduct research, yet another your ability to exploit a chess database if you happen to use one. The last example is crucial. The use of computer databases becomes a much trickier question if we decide that what postal chess is supposed to measure is 'pure chess ability.' It does not do that. No sport does.
  2. Sports have rules for lots of reasons, but one important one is to spare participants time and emotional energy figuring out what they are supposed to do, what is reasonably required of them. This frees time and energy up to focus on what postal is primarily about -- chess. Once you say it is okay to take moves back if they reflect notational errors, a host of questions come up. What constitutes a notational error, how does one 'prove' intention, what is the difference between a typographical error, which results from one kind of attention deficit, and leaving a piece hanging, which results from another. Does anyone ever intend to hang a piece? ...
  3. I don't want (to be) put in a position in which the expectations regarding my own behavior are not clear. Do I HAVE to offer my opponent a take-back? If I have the option to do so, he will certainly be angry and think I am not a sport. I am not playing chess to make people angry at me. On the other hand, rules give me the option to accept the errant move if it is legal. You see the problem here? I don't want to waste my time thinking about this. If the rules say, the move counts, they don't give me a choice. They don't give my opponent a choice. We can concentrate on chess, and be friends.
"My proposal [Ned Walthall's]. If you truly like the game you are playing and someone sends a move that is an obvious notation error, give the person the option to resign, award his opponent the point, and offer a match game, resumed from the same position."

Harold Shane also sent a few comments:

"I could not agree with you more! At my age (58), I know that I will never be a world class player and really participate strictly for enjoyment. When I play (unrated) OTB with friends we often give moves back rather than ruin a good game. I realize that APCT games are rated but ratings are not a matter of life and death. I have lost games through notational errors but have never won one ... instead I have given back moves. Again, in APCT play there are cash prizes so I guess that is important to some players. Still, what pleasure does someone get out of such a win."

Is this the final word on giving back moves? Somehow I doubt it. Feel free to add your comments on this or any other issue of interest to postal chess players.

GM Patrick Wolff Discusses Chess Ethics

In the July 1994 issue of Chess Life GM Patrick Wolff's column "The Play's THE THING, but MY RENT is due" discusses an incident reminiscent of the notational error issue above. He had previously written about the incident and had polled readers for their opinions. In his words, "Briefly, he made a move and forgot to hit his clock. I did not call it to his attention, and 15 minutes elapsed before he realized his omission. He refused to shake my hand after the game, and thought that my conduct was unsportsmanlike. I felt that it was not my responsibility to call his attention to his own error. When I polled the spectators afterward to find out what the prevailing opinion was, there was a genuine split. About two-thirds agreed with my position, but there was a strong minority who felt that it was not gentlemanly conduct on my behalf."

The article, which contains a number of quotes from reader responses, makes for fascinating reading. The results of the reader poll were similar to the sentiments at the tournament site. Though the analogy to the notation error issue is not precise there are still some arguments in the column that would sound very familiar to readers of this column. You'll even find the George Will quote from Stephan Gerzadowicz that appeared in one of my earlier columns.

Chess Life Columnist Uses Computer!

We are used to seeing the one excellent postal column in Chess Life written by Alex Dunne. But we are treated to a second postal chess article in the June 1994 issue, "Adventures in Postal Land" by Jeremy Silman. It's an interesting article written from the perspective of a strong OTB player who dabbles in postal. The most interesting part of the article for me was on page 25 in the annotations of a game. Silman concluded at one point that his opponent (who was playing very well) must be using a computer. So he fed the position to his computer to find out how the computer would continue. When he found that his computer preferred a move for his opponent that was actually a bad move he played into that line hoping his opponent's computer would make the same mistake. I'm not familiar enough with USCF rules to know if consulting computers in any form is legal but this is the first time I've run across a player admitting in a major publication that he used a computer to help win a game. It was, of course, a novel approach to using a computer to help win a game.

copyright © 1994, 1998 by J. Franklin Campbell

Home Column Menu Previous Column Next Column